Talk of taking over PG&E continues at latest town hall meeting

Almost 100 people turned out for a town hall meeting Monday night, focused on wildfire response and power shutoffs.

The event was held at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Hall, which last week was functioning as an Emergency Operations Center.

With the recent PG&E outage still fresh, many attendees expressed anger with the utility. 

Some argued the company should be publicly controlled, rather than investor-owned.  

"We're all here because PG&E has stolen our piece of mind," said one speaker, among many making comments. 

State Sen. Bill Dodd, who hosted the gathering, was blunt in his own opinion. 

"The status quo at PG&E is unacceptable," he declared, "and everything should be on the table."

Dodd, a Democrat from Napa, said the mix of deferred maintenance, poor oversight, and climate change has created the present crisis. 

Some in the audience came with questions. 

"What are the plans to fix the problem, can technology provide electricity without fires?" posed one man. 

Other participants were interested in fire prevention advice. 

"I just moved to Sonoma a year ago from San Francisco, and I'm concerned about wildfires," admitted one woman. 

In October 2017, the Nuns Fire ravaged Glen Ellen to the west and burned low in the hills around the city of Sonoma.

This year, de-energizations were the ongoing threat.   

"We treat power shut-offs as a life-safety hazard, flat-out," said Christopher Godley, Director of Sonoma County Emergency Management. "We see it as a continuum of flood, fire, earthquake, power shut-offs."  

Godley notes, the impacts go well beyond malfunctioning traffic signals. 

With six PSPS events this year, Sonoma County officials are determined to act fast. 

"As soon as PG&E says they're thinking about it, we go into action, because by the time the power goes off, it's too late to start," said Godley. 

Losses to business and individuals have barely been calculated. 

When it's consecutive days, when the food in your refrigerator starts to go bad, and you're on a limited income, then it starts to steamroll very quickly," said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

The county has commissioned a study by Moody Analytics, to evaluate the full economic impact. 

"We believe that estimate is between $50 and $70 million," said Rabbitt. 

The town hall panel also included a representative from the California Public Utilities Commission, criticized for lax oversight of PG&E over the years, but promising a tighter rein now. 

"I can't speak for the commissioners, but I don't think anybody had the plan for 900,000 people having their power turned off in half the state," said CPUC staffer Anthony Noll. 

As for tourist-dependent Sonoma, the turmoil has caused uncertainty. 

"We had cancellations at first, and now we're seeing people come back and enjoy town, but we're in a bit of limbo-land," said Sonoma City Manager Cathy Capriola. 

Most of the 10,000 people inside city limits were spared the most recent outages. 

But 35,000 others, living in the surrounding valley, were not. 

As a result, many hotels and wineries are spending money to install back-up power.  

"Everybody is getting generators put in- or batteries- so I believe next year we will be so much more resilient, it won't matter," said Capriola. 

But a mother who rose to speak, said finances are a barrier, although she has a medically-fragile child whose care relies on electricity.

"To get a generator would be a hardship on me and I would like to know if there's any agency that can help me pay for one," she said.